A Short History of Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering uses principles of soil and rock mechanics to design structures and foundations. It is a subdiscipline of civil engineering and has been applied for hundreds of years to myriad projects. To get an idea of the geotechnical engineering timeline, let’s take a look at the history of geotechnical engineering starting in the 18th century.

The start of the geotechnical engineering timeline

While the first use of soil in construction is not documented, the application of geotechnical engineering as we define it today started in the 18th century. We do know that ancient civilizations were able to build and flourish along river banks such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Huang Ho. However, we have more details about the geotechnical engineering timeline beginning in the 1700s.

Based on the known history of geotechnical engineering, we can divide the geotechnical engineering timeline into four periods: Pre-Classical, Classical Soil Mechanics Phase I, Classical Soil Mechanics Phase II and Modern Soil Mechanics.

The Pre-Classical period (1700-1776)

During this period, the focus was on natural slope and the weights of different types of soils. Engineers also studied earth pressure theories. The first results from a lab test in this field of study were reported by a French engineer in 1746. Francois Gadroy had observed slip planes. During this period, another engineer, Jean Rodolphe Perronet, documented the difference between fills and intact ground.

Classical Soil Mechanics Phase I (1776-1856)

France continued to lead in the field of geotechnical engineering during this phase. Scientists started to apply principles of calculus to sliding surfaces and retaining walls. Advances were made in backfills as well as determining the magnitude of pressure on retaining walls. Toward the end of this period, Alexandre Collin made advances in approximating actual failure of surfaces.

Classical Soil Mechanics Phase II (1856-1910)

The end of Phase I and the start of Phase II is marked by the publication of a study that provided insight into the equilibrium of earth masses and earth pressure. During Phase II, experiments produced new insights into sand and sand filters. The term “hydraulic conductivity” was also introduced during this period. This term is still an important component of geotechnical engineering today.

Modern Soil Mechanics (1910-1927)

During this period, researchers established the fundamental properties of clay. Work was done to develop and confirm theories regarding the pressure and resistance of clay and its bearing capacity. A paper published in 1926 provided solutions for clay slopes and slip surfaces.

Learn more

To learn more about the history of geotechnical engineering and how advances in the field impact all sorts of projects today, contact the team at EMC2, Inc. Since 1996, we have been the premier provider of structural engineering services in Rockville, MD and the surrounding areas. We work with a variety of services, including structural and geo-structural engineering, civil and site engineering, construction consulting and more. Call now with any questions for our experts, or feel free to stop in to speak to our friendly and professional staff. Reach us today at 301-424-8696.